Everyone deals with stress in his or her own way. Some of us seem to have as busy and as stressful a life as others, yet we seem to have little or no anxiety or depression, whereas others in similar situations suffer significantly. Some of us, when feeling stressed, develop “bad” habits, like drinking alcohol or using other drugs, or engaging in binge eating. Others have explosive outbursts, or become reclusive and withdrawn. Researchers have tackled the issue of stress for many decades and have identified strategies for better handling of stress.
Stress can be destructive to both mental and physical health. The constant “fight or flight” reflex of the “amygdala” region of our brain can age us and prematurely end our life. How do we use our “frontal cortex,” the area of logic, to deal better with stress and live a more peaceful life?
A group of friends and I just came back from a two-day conference in Neurology and Psychiatry of Women at Brigham and Women’s hospital. We learned a lot about mental illnesses and neurological disorders in women. These two fields indeed are intertwined in many ways, with treatment modalities overlapping with each other. One of the lectures I liked was from a neurologist whom I initially thought was a psychiatrist. Dr. Marie Pasinski, a neurology professor from Mass General Hospital, gave a lecture on stress management in a very “zen” way. Most of the strategies she discussed have been mentioned in numerous media outlets. Most of us know these strategies, but few of us probably follow them closely in our daily life. When stress takes over our life, we are in panic mode and might forget all the skills we have mastered before.
Below are some basic strategies we all should remember in our daily living to manage our stress better. Let me know if you have even more strategies for us to use to de-stress ourselves.
MINDFULNESS: Yoga or Meditation activities.
You might feel intimidated by all these seem to be so “zen” people walking around, telling you how they have an “organized” time and setting for their daily meditation sessions. Some have certain rituals of being in a certain place in the house, surrounded by scented incense or candles, drinking coconut oil etc… Meditation, as Dr. Pasinski would tell you, can be done anytime or anywhere during your hectic days. Learn to close your eyes for two minutes, as you should have at least two minutes during your hectic days to do something useful for your inner peace, to focus on a pleasant sound (can be downloaded from your cellphone), the sound of rain, the ocean, or a bird chirping, or a repetitive thought or word which yogis call a “mantra,” or on your breathing. Can you hear the quietness of your breaths? You sure can if you shut out all other distractions around you for just a few minutes. In just a few minutes, you will be physically and emotionally more relaxed.
Studies on transcendental meditation have shown how relaxation response has the opposite effects of stress. It lowers our blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates. It helps our body to consume less oxygen and lower the hormonal markers which tend to lead to inflammation, such as cortisol. Inflammation is the foundation of many illnesses including cancer.
Yoga has been found to relax us, tone our body, build up our physical strength, and give us more flexibility and balance. As we age, balance and flexibility is crucial to lower our risk of falling. Do not be intimidated by the seemingly challenging moves of yoga. There are various styles of yoga, some more “sporty” than others. Maybe you, like me, have a “bad” neck. This isn’t a problem. You can refuse to stand on your head or lift yourself off the ground as in the “Crow Pose.” You can stick to the basic stretching but keep your mind focused on each pose. It is mindfulness when the mind does not wander outside of each pose.
2. MOVE: Exercise, exercise, exercise…
This is my major strategy of stress relief. I will put on my running shoes after sometime near 36-hour point of a two-day office work mixed with on-call night in between, to run the 3.2 mile loop in my neighborhood. Of course, I will not run as fast as I often do, but fast enough to make my blood vessels dilate, lower my cortisol level, and boost my endorphin or energy level. Think of endorphins as one of our “happiness” hormones. A moderate to intense workout can boost our endorphin level.
In the short run, exercise can lower our stress level. In the long run, it strengthens our body, lowers our risk of dementia, and prevents numerous other serious illnesses that often affect us as we age such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases. It makes us more functional as we age so we can enjoy our retirement years.
3. SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT: Never Worry Alone
We all have those moments when we feel better sharing our “sorrow” with those who care about us, to get it “off our chest.” Social interaction and support has been shown to link to longevity, physical, mental and brain health. Positive social interactions have been found to decrease our cortisone and boost our oxytocin level. Oxytocin has been found to be another “happiness” hormone.
Reach out to your friends and family members when you find yourself in troubled times. Engage in social activities that you like, such as bookclubs, group exercise, foodie groups. Socially engage with your coworkers. Work, for many of us, takes more than half of our daily living time. Make a family out of your office staff; your stress level at work will be lowered as your frustration or problems can be shared with like minded co-workers.
4. ADEQUATE SLEEP: Good Sleep Hygiene
Do you sleep 7-8 hours a night? Do not be impressed by those who can get by with 3 hours of sleep nightly, like president Trump, or 5 hours a night, like president Clinton. They put themselves at risk for dementia, hypertension, diabetes, weight gain and numerous other health problems. Extensive scientific studies have shown how sleep deprivation can promote inflammation, raise beta amyloid levels which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, and disrupt the secretion of numerous hormones that protect our neurons such as N-acetylserotonin, and Growth Hormone. We only grow while we sleep.
Practice good sleep habits, such as having a regular “circadian” rhythm. Try to have regular sleep/wake/eating/exercising cycle, if we can. Try not to expose yourself to “blue lights” from your gadgets, wear a sleep mask if necessary, and avoid stimulants like caffeine several hours before going to bed. Mindfulness activities have been found to be more useful than taking sleeping pills.
5. NATURE: Free and Therapeutic for the Mind!
Scientific studies have found how stress levels are lowered in those who exercise outdoors, such as taking a walk in the woods, compared to those who tend to stay indoors.
Find activities in each season that you can do outdoors, even if it’s only on and off. Take a walk or run on the C&O canal, as in my Sunday walking/running group, hike a nearby mountain, or simply walk in your neighborhood. Save the rainy or stormy days for the gyms or your basement. My Sunday walking/running group does not stop during the winter, unless it is too icy on the C&O canal. Some of us wear heavy boots, while others cover up as if they live in Alaska during the deep winters. We are, however, mindful of fallen branches or icy patches on the trails. We lookout for each other. Being alone in nature, in certain seasons or in bad weather, can be risky.
6. ALTRUISM: Do Something Nice for Others
An expansive study by Dr. MJPoulin, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013, showed how caring for others can promote our own well being. In this study, given the equivalent stressful life, those who help others have a lower five year mortality rate. The researchers believe altruism is a form of social engagement, which has shown to promote longevity.
I hope you find the above strategies easy to do. Stress and Happiness are intertwined. Once you master these strategies, you will find how your life overall can be more relaxed. Life is short, no time to waste on stress.